Sunday, May 15, 2011

"I Am A Man!"

This Thomas Friedman column this morning evoked a historical image that Friedman should have caught. In discussing the Libyan uprisings, he used his typical anecdotal reportage*:
A Libyan friend remarked to me the other day that he was watching Arab satellite TV out of Benghazi, Libya, and a sign held aloft at one demonstration caught his eye. It said in Arabic: “Ana Rajul” — which translates to “I am a man.” If there is one sign that sums up the whole Arab uprising, it’s that one.
Indeed the title of the column is "I Am a Man!"

I am a bit surprised and disappointed that an American columnist would not recognize that during the Memphis Sanitation Workers' strike in 1968 (it was in Memphis during the strike that Martin Luther King, Jr, was assassinated) strikers wore sandwich boards reading in big block print: "I AM A MAN!"

Beyond any gendered interpretation the Memphis campaign embodied the kind of movement that Friedman intends to identify, and while he invokes Albert Camus and Che Guevara he misses perhaps the most salient historical resonance. Now, whether the movement in Libya bears the characteristics of that in Memphis is an entirely different question, but the assertion "I am a man!" should have set off some historical analogies in Friedman's mind.

* I do not intend this characterization as criticism. Friedman's detractors -- and he has many -- are usually not willing to grant just how good he is at this kind of writing. They see his work as shallow and impressionistic. And it may be. But in terms of trying to bring complex issues to a general audience, Friedman is very good, and the closer he stays to the Middle East beat, the more valuable he is. I have found his "The World is Flat" pop sociology-economics commentary to be facile and self generating, but I maintain that From Beirut to Jerusalem is as good an introduction to the Israel-Palestine question as one is likely to find.

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